Trump v. Clinton may be the big story of of 2016, but let us not forget some of the critical issues down the ballot this year. A prominent example is Massachusetts’ Question 2 on charter school expansion. The initiative potentially affects not just the future of public education in a state known for its high educational standards, but the freedom of citizens to control education policy in their own communities.
What exactly is mandated under Question 2? A “yes” vote on the initiative would authorize the state Board of Education to approve up to 12 new charter schools per year for the foreseeable future, going vastly beyond the current cap of 120 charter schools in the state. It is an open-ended initiative that seems to assume that charter school enrollment will always get larger and public school enrollment will continuously shrink. It suggests a move toward a two-tier system of education, if not outright privatization. Of concern to many, the measure lacks provisions for flexibility or compromise. It is a top-down initiative giving the Board of Education, filled with charter backers appointed by the current governor, authority to decide unilaterally where to locate such schools, regardless of the will of the community so targeted.
Supporters of Question 2, most notably the Republican governor and pro-business groups inside and outside of the state, argue for increasing the number of charter schools because they offer citizens unhappy with existing public schools a “choice.” Charter schools offer benign competition with public schools under the theory that the more schools there are, the better. Supporters even portray charter expansion as strengthening public education (which voters favor) since charters, in supporters’ words, are simply public schools in another form.
Opponents, who include almost all the school committees, town and city councils, and labor organizations in Massachusetts, take issue with this representation. For one thing, they point out that charter schools are not “public schools” in any meaningful sense since they do not answer to the communities where they are located. Charters are accountable neither to parent-teacher associations, nor to the town councils and local tax-payers who must fund them. Indeed, they are are not publicly transparent, being responsible only to their own directors, managing boards, and the state board that authorizes them.
Furthermore, the charters exist under a different set of rules than public schools. They generally are not required to serve all of the children within the community, especially those who are challenged or disabled. This relieves them of major burdens that normal public schools willingly accept. And they are free to expel students who they view as problems, which often makes it easier for them to demonstrate better academic results than regular public schools. Even so, charter schools on average perform little better than public schools, if at all.
But opponents’ fundamental point is that the problem of failing schools is not lack of school “choice,” but lack of adequate school funding in those poor communities that lag behind. Inner city school districts receive much less funding than their suburban counterparts because of a shortage of tax resources. While Question 2, if passed, would add to the number of schools in disadvantaged communities, it would not address the question of inequity between school districts. On the contrary, it would put increasing demands on the finances of the local communities by disproportionately shifting available funds away from their existing public schools.
On top of the above considerations, there is one more fact underlying opponents’ case: Massachusetts is renowned for having the best public schools in the nation. It has ranked #1 on the U.S.’s long-standing NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) test for years. If it were a country, Massachusetts would rank among the top ten nations in the world in math, reading, and science. Admittedly, it needs to do more to support its poorer districts. But why would anyone want to alter radically a public school system that excels by world standards?
There is a reason, of course, why Question 2 is on the ballot at all. The simple answer is that certain folks with a lot of cash and influence realize that there’s money to be made in charter schools. Investments in for-profit charters and services for non-profit charters have proven to be hugely profitable for entrepreneurs and hedge fund investors looking to put their money to use. They have thus been a major force in efforts to enable ballot initiatives like Question 2 and to argue for them. Meanwhile, the only entities with the funds to oppose such initiatives are national and local teachers unions. They have found firm allies in the parents, students, local communities, and general public that value public education.
The prodigious amount of money spent on both sides of Question 2 gives an idea of how high the stakes are. Not surprisingly, the billionaires have the advantage. Figures as of October 27 show that they have outspent charter opponents by over 50%, accounting for 19 million dollars as compared with opponents’ 13 million. Most of the pro-charter money comes from out-of-state sources (82%) and from untraceable, “dark money” (76%), except for major individual contributions by the Walmart heirs and other anti-union forces. In contrast, anti-charter money is all traceable (mostly to union organizations) and is less dependent on out-of-state contributions (48%).
Pro-charter forces know if they win on Question 2 in a state with the highest standards in the nation, they have a green light for the marketization of education anywhere in the U.S. Those opposing the initiative know that public education as a cherished foundation of our democracy is on the line. Ten days away from the election, the polls are saying it’s too close to call.